A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE FOR OUR CHILDREN, GRANDCHILDREN, AND THEIRS, THROUGH
We need to recognise the dire challenges ahead which will result from global warming and resource depletion. Beyond the petty politics of today, we should have great fear for the future of our children, and theirs. This essay suggests that convivial politics could help to create a sustainable future for the next generation.
This country, and the wider world, is going to see enormous disruption, if not destruction, of the economic systems on which today’s affluence depends. Climate change will lead to humanitarian disasters and the human consequences of global shortages of food, water and energy will lead to economic turmoil if not international strife.
We should be searching relentlessly for ways to establish peaceful and sustainable ways of living with a reasonable quality of life for our successors across the planet. Otherwise our legacy will be much worse than the one we inherited.
To meet these challenges this essay argues that government needs to embrace convivial ideas. It is unlikely that the present government (of 2016), with its beliefs in individualism, untrammelled market forces, reduction of public services and minimalist government will engage in the kind of thinking needed. But a future coalition of the left might if it has the courage and foresight to embrace the French concern for liberty, equality and fraternity – and adds ecology, sustainability and adult education.
These are all convivial notions where conviviality describes a way of living in which people gain quality of life and enjoy happiness by striving to be in harmony with themselves and with their social, cultural and natural environments. In brief these are the right meanings for today's challenges:
How can these political notions be advanced? Here are nine suggestions which have an essential coherence around the concept of conviviality.
CONVIVIAL POLITICAL ACTION 1
ESTABLISH THE MEDIA AS AN EDUCATIVE FORCE FOR ADULTS
The media has a vital educative role in a democracy. As C P Scott said, a newspaper’s primary office is the gathering of news. News needs to be clearly separate from comment so that the public is clear when it is reading about what events have taken place and reading what some commentators think about them. Confusing the two has a disastrous impact on politicians whose policy decisions depend ultimately on how the public may vote at the next election. The thought of condemnatory front-page banner headlines frightens politicians.
The next government should find democratic ways of limiting the power of press moguls, perhaps by insisting on ownership being in the hands of trusts with publicly enunciated aims and requiring trust members to be British citizens. Newspapers should be expected to find a way of balancing celebrity culture and sports news with sufficient political news to enable the reading public to know what significant debates are taking place in parliament and how government is trying to respond to the challenges of our time. At present most newspapers give scant attention to political debate.
The media needs to be more focussed as an educative force. For example, the following ideas deserve informed debate by the media rather than instant front-page denunciation!
CONVIVIAL POLITICAL ACTION 2
LEGISLATE TO CURB HIGH PAY
The book The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett shows that inequality in the UK is higher than in many industrial countries around the world and that inequality correlates with many social and environmental problems such as ill-health, lack of community life, violence, drugs, obesity, mental illness, long working hours and big prison populations.
The reasons for this inequality are explored in Dorling’s book Injustice: why social inequality persists in which he identifies five new tenets of injustice, that: elitism is efficient; exclusion is necessary; prejudice is natural; greed is good; and despair is inevitable. So, how can a future left-wing government reduce inequality in our society?
One answer is for a maximum take-home pay as an agreed and universal multiple of a living minimum wage. Before the very rich squeal too loud, we should ask whether it is the gross income that gives them the craved esteem of their fellows, or the take-home income. The fact is that prestigious salaries and bonuses are quoted as gross and not after tax as net. So, if this is the testosterone of the higher echelons of the business world, let them be paid these gross sums, glory at the level, boast about it, but pay tax which reduces it to the chosen national maximum! Provided, of course, that the tax authorities can track them down and ensure that people who claim citizenship, make their money here, use our infrastructure, and enjoy our national culture, pay their taxes here in full.
It is noteworthy that the Tory Lib-Dem Coalition talked of introducing a maximum wage for people in the public sector, but dared not suggest it for the business world! Michael Gove, when secretary for Education said that no headteacher should earn more than the prime minister (whose salary was £142,500).
CONVIVIAL POLITICAL ACTION 3
INTRODUCE CITIZEN’S INCOME
This is an idea which has been around for a long time. Citizen’s income would be paid to everybody as the right of a citizen in our advanced and prosperous society and not means tested. It would replace state pensions, child benefits, most disabled benefits, tax credits, and unemployment benefits. The last of these will be vital at a time of economic turbulence when many jobs are lost and new ones (hopefully in green industries) slowly come into existence. It would be recouped in tax from everyone in paid employment and for this reason would be administered by the Inland Revenue. It would entail higher taxes for the better off and fits neatly with the concept of a maximum take-home wage. By reducing inequality it would begin to resolve many of our social and environmental problems and would provide the basis for an economic system sustainable into the distant future. It is in accord with the principles of fraternity and equality.
CONVIVIAL POLITICAL ACTION 4
DEVELOP NATIONAL AND LOCAL SELF-SUFFICIENCY IN FOOD AND ENERGY
In a troubled world our future will be more secure if we grow more of our own food. Suppose, for example, that we set a target of producing 90 per cent of our own food within ten years. There would be many implications for the farming community, food manufacturers, food distributors, and super-markets. A related idea is to ensure that every family where the breadwinners are out of work has the opportunity of using an allotment for growing vegetables and fruit. In dense urban areas this may require careful organisation.
In terms of energy we need to recognise that while we need to reduce drastically our carbon dioxide emissions it is likely that in the near future global oil production will peak and liquid fuels will become increasingly expensive. This will have major implications for international freight and for personal travel. This becomes an argument for localising food production and, in terms of personal travel trying to develop local communities and bicycle travel. There can be little doubt that we need to reduce our energy consumption and actively develop energy sources utilising wind, wave and solar power.
Developing self-sufficiency in food and energy will mean that many jobs will be lost and new ones created. This is why the idea of citizen’s income is important because it will ensure that people are supported in the gap, which may be long, between one job and the next.
CONVIVIAL POLITICAL ACTION 5
Lord Stern made this point very clearly in his major report on climate change, yet many industries and especially the financial ones in the City of London have chosen to ignore this warning. But it is Neil Lawson’s book All Consuming, that tells it most clearly. He refers to
It is this turbo-consumerism that we need to find ways to curb. Lawson argues that there are two interlinked ways of doing this.
These are two major reasons for curbing consumerism. First, the planet cannot sustain the present levels of consumption of the industrial countries which are a major contributor to global warming. Yet the poorer nations of the world, seeing our levels of consumption on world-wide television, seek the same. Second, consumerism in the industrial countries has reached levels at which those of us with money to spend have many more possessions but are not happier as a result. Consuming has become too much a way of life. Lawson again:
The major task here, for the next left wing government, is first to demonstrate the wisdom of these ideas and encourage individuals to act on them, and second to legislate to curb rampant consumerism.
CONVIVIAL POLITICAL ACTION 6
RE-KINDLE COMMUNITY SPIRIT
In the past, communities were the strength of the nation, providing support for young, old and infirm people and companionship for all. In the twentieth century for a variety of reasons, including cheap travel, home amusements of television and computer games, migration to urban centres for work opportunities, and lurid media stories of crime and murder, many communities were weakened and people became more wary of those living near to them.
In the near future, when rocketing oil prices make transport more expensive, people will necessarily be more localised. With many people living longer lives there will be increasing demands for support for the elderly and already we are finding that local authorities are over-stretched. These are good reasons for rekindling community spirit.
We need to aid community development. If every school is a good school parents will send their children to the local school – and this is a potent force for community development. If local libraries are well stocked and local sport centres and community centres well equipped, people will use them. If allotments are available people will often share them – and give surplus crops to their neighbours.
One national venture that has been particularly successful was initiated by the Eden Project – the Big Lunch – community street parties on a Sunday in the middle of July. It was launched in 2009 with these words:
Perhaps the mid-July Sunday should be declared a national holiday – with shops and everything except essential services closed for the day: the Community Holiday.
CONVIVIAL POLITICAL ACTION 7
CARRY OUT ELECTORAL REFORM:
FPTP FOR NATIONAL GOVERNMENT AND PR FOR LOCAL MP
Simon Jenkins once commented in The Guardian that There are two purposes to a general election vote. One is to select a stable executive … the other to choose an assembly to check that power. Keen as politicians may be to become that executive and exercise the power to run the country, they must always remember that it is Parliament, the legislature, that enacts the law and ensures that the executive does not exceed its legitimate powers.
A disturbing feature of our nation is that too few people decide to vote in elections and so, in effect, governments have been chosen by only a minority of the electorate. Many who do not take the trouble to vote shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Well this is not a marginal constituency. My vote would have no effect’. There is a simple voting system which would counter that. It is based on a proportional representation ballot paper on which voters rank the candidates – who are listed by name and political party.
The count is done in two ways. (1) The first choice votes are counted in terms of political party and are added up across the nation to determine which party forms the government. (2) The PR procedure is used to decide who should represent each constituency as member of parliament.
This would mean that every vote counts, one way or another, towards the election of the government, and so, irrespective of the constituency result, everyone who votes has participated in the choice of government. It would also mean that every MP has the full or partial support of over 50% of the constituency electors who vote.
This simple measure could encourage everyone to vote and to take more interest in political affairs.
Sometimes it might result in the government not having a majority of MPs in parliament. Would this matter? If voting in Parliament were less tribal (ie by reducing the power of the party whips) and more on the perceived merits of proposed legislation, we might see fewer ill-conceived laws being put on the statute book. Defeat of proposals should not be seen as entailing defeat of government, but it should lead to government caution – and so enhance the desirable separation of powers between executive and legislature.
CONVIVIAL POLITICAL ACTION 8
CREATE INTERNATIONAL POLICIES FOR PEACE, AID AND DRUG CONTROL
Perhaps the most neglected of the six convivial notions at the head of this essay is fraternity. We need to look closely at the way in which we relate to the rest of the world and, in particular how we, the affluent, support the poor of the world. A difficult issue is that we know that the poor of the world can never reach our level of affluence and, while many of them may want to achieve it, we also know that our level of affluence is becoming self-destructing. What we may hope for is that people everywhere can achieve an acceptable quality of life consonant with their historical development, cultural norms and territorial resources. Top priorities must be peace – an absence of strife, followed by humanitarian aid.
First, we should support international efforts to end the arms trade. The export of weapons from this country should be banned outright. Too often our weapons are used for aggression, not defence. Yes, it will cost jobs, but these can be remade if our death factories begin to ‘turn swords into ploughshares’ and export simple farming equipment, water pumps and hand tools.
Second, our military policies need to be reconsidered. We should renounce all nuclear and biological weapons on both moral and practical grounds and support others in doing the same. We should recognise that we can only rarely stop some of the awful crimes committed against humanity around the world by military force. But where we are reasonably sure that we can achieve humanitarian ends, we should be sure that our soldiers are properly equipped and, if they come home wounded, that we give them every support that they need, and if they don’t come home (as every soldier knows is a possibility) that we support their families.
Third, is international aid. In terms of the Millenium Declaration, of which our country was a co-signee, we must continue to provide financial aid to the governments of poor countries and, when possible, increase it. Likewise, because climate change (for which, in part, we are responsible) is likely to lead to an increase in humanitarian disasters around the world we must be ready to provide rapid aid. But, put simply, we need to ensure that our support enhances the lot of the impoverished and doesn’t line the pockets of the powerful. It may be that every aid package should arrive with a plane-full of anti-corruption accountants and lawyers.
Fourth, we should work internationally to decriminalise the drug trade. Prohibition policies have failed. Careful legislation is required to regulate the supply and quality of narcotics and to support programmes for ending addiction. Apart from releasing police resources, reducing the prison population and improving public health in this country it will help reduce strife in countries like Colombia and Afghanistan.
CONVIVIAL POLITICAL ACTION 9
AWAKE INTEREST IN POLITICS: TELL HOW IT IS AND HOW IT MAY BE
None of these tasks outlined above would be easy, but they have a coherence. They are all designed for creating a future for our children based on the tenets set out earlier: liberty, equality, fraternity, ecology, sustainability, and adult education. They demand that we step outside the box of tribal politics and strive for the good of a future which is, obviously, unknowable. Unknowable? Yes – but not unpredictable. Most scientists and many writers have deep insights into where we are heading.
It would be valuable for three of our national non-governmental bodies to come together, perhaps using a website, to give straightforward accounts of present day problems and future predictions, that could serve as a trustworthy library or data-base for journalists to consult as a source. Likewise anyone else who wants to understand the predicament of humankind – and an idealist would say that should be all of us and certainly all of us with children and grandchildren - could use it. The three are: the Royal Society, the Academy of Social Sciences and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
There combined wisdom could be a vital step in enabling the media to become an effective educative force for telling the electorate how it is and how it may be.
A powerful setting for these ideas is The Dark Mountain, prepared by a group of deep-thinking writers. It is probably the most profound book written in the first decade of the 21st century.
The Dark Mountain Project is not concerned with fantasising about catastrophe; it is concerned with being honest about reality: something which most of us, as human beings, find painfully hard.
When you accept this vision of the future – and it seems that a growing number of people do - then questions inevitably arise: what do we do with our lives? How does this change our choices, and the assumptions on which those choices are made? What kinds of actions still make sense? And, deeper still, there is the question which underpins the Project, what stories do we tell ourselves?
What stories do you tell about the country, the world and the future?
This page was posted on 28 August 2010 and revised on 25 November 2015 and 24 May 2016. Earlier misinterpretations of 'socialism' have been deleted.